Peter Edelman is among the most outspoken antipoverty advocates in the United States. Currently a law professor at Georgetown University School of Law, Edelman has became a household name in 1996 after he resigned from his position in the Department of Health and Human Services in protest against President Bill Clinton signing of the welfare reform bill into law. In his new book, "So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America," Edelman explores the intricacies of poverty in America. You can order the book here.
America is different in a lot of good ways from the time when I got started. We have made a great deal of progress in many areas that affect poverty—on race, on gender, on the creation of a medical safety net and a food safety net, on the economic security of the elderly. Optimists that we were in the continuing postwar glow of the 1960s, we may even have taken those things somewhat for granted when they happened. There is more to be done on each, but we have done well.
But then there were the things that we didn’t foresee: the shift of the economy to so much low-wage work, the changes in family composition, the crisis in public education, the weakening of social mobility, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, the disconnection of so many young people from school and work.
We did a lot about poverty, to the point where there would be something like 40 million more people in poverty now without such things as food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the indexing of Social Security to inflation.
Despite the damage done to the safety net under President Reagan and the demise of welfare under President Clinton, events that would have made poverty much worse were neutralized, even though not overcome, by the policies we enacted over the years. So if you look objectively at what has happened, the claim that nothing works is revealed for what it is—totally hot air.
But we need to be crystal clear now. We are headed in the wrong direction. The hole we are in is getting deeper and deeper. The costs of not doing the right thing now for all of our children are going to get higher and higher. The tents of Occupy Wall Street may be gone by the time this book appears, but "We are the 99%" remains. We have to act, for all of the 99 percent.
As long as middle-income voters think they have more in common with the people at the top than the people at the bottom, we are cooked. The question of jobs that produce enough income so people can live comfortably is an issue that cuts across a huge swath of the population. The question of how to deliver quality (and, after high school, affordable) education so that everyone is prepared for the best job they have the capacity to hold is an issue that confronts a substantial majority. The challenge is to get people in the middle to understand which side of the line they are on. If they continue to believe that social mobility is realistically available for themselves and their children the way things are playing out, they will be much less likely to do what they have to do to protect themselves, let alone sympathize with people down the line. The people have the power if they will use it, but they have to see that it is in their interest to do so.
In a way we have not seen since the Great Depression, the rich and the powerful are adding every day to the bricks that make up the wall of their separation from everyone else. The banks earn record profits but do not lend, and the government does not press them to do it. The big companies stockpile enormous cash reserves but do not hire, and the government does not stimulate demand for their products. And the answer to the possibility of raising taxes at the top just to the level they were a dozen years ago remains a resounding no.
This is crazy.
The first thing we need to do is roll back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. If we can’t do that, we’re not going to have the resources to do the next ten things. Attacking inequality means action at the bottom as well as the top. The fundamental and continuing priorities are jobs that yield a decent income, a reliable safety net, and an educational system that delivers for every child. The immediate priority, along with action on the revenue side, is to defend and protect the basic programs without which poverty would be even worse. And the most pressing need, in pure humanitarian terms, is to repair the rip in our American safety net that leaves us with so many millions who are in deep poverty, especially the 6 million people who have no income other than food stamps.
We should not kid ourselves. There is no inevitability to things remaining even as good as they are now. The wealth and income of the top 1 percent grows at the expense of everyone else. Money breeds power, and power breeds more money. It is a truly vicious circle.
Our side has one main weapon: people power. We need the public intellectuals and the advocates and the foundations and whichever powerful people are on our side. But our real weapon, our best weapon—our weapon of mass construction when we use it—is us. As I write, people seem to be waking up and emerging from their unaccountable passivity of the past two-and-a-half years. In Ohio, they rejected the governor’s effort to destroy public unions. In Maine, they fought off a dangerous voter-protection law. In Mississippi, they turned away an anti-abortion proposition that was beyond the fringe. We can hope, but it will take a lot of work.
I have seen both the days of promise and the days of darkness, and I’ve seen them more than once. All history is like that. There have been times when it looked like the rich had a chokehold, irrevocably, on all of our resources and political power. They didn’t last. There have been times when it looked like those who think the poor are poor simply because they made bad choices were in power permanently. They didn’t last either.
We have to be at it steadily, all the time. This means both electoral politics and outside advocacy and organizing. We tend to lurch back and forth. My take on the Obama election in 2008 is that we put all our eggs in the electoral basket and then figured he would do it all and we could go about our business. There were two problems with that. One, he needed our help to get things done, and two, he needed to hear our voice about what he was not doing that he should have been doing and what he was doing that was wrong. You can’t just vote and then disappear for four years. But there have also been times when we turned up our nose at the electoral part of it on some dopey theory that it didn’t matter who won and found out otherwise, to our detriment. So one lesson, which we seem to learn and then forget over and over again, is that we have to work both the inside and the outside—in the electoral world and from the outside to keep elected officials honest and make them better than they would otherwise be.
I am an optimist. I have to be or I wouldn’t have written this book.
Excerpted with permission from "So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America." Available from The New Press. Copyright © 2012.